Public Health Pot Shots

How the CDC succumbed to the Gun "Epidemic"

Last year Congress tried to take away $2.6 million from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In budgetary terms, it was a pittance: 0.1 percent of the CDC's $2.2 billion allocation. Symbolically, however, it was important: $2.6 million was the amount the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control had spent in 1995 on studies of firearm injuries. Congressional critics, who charged that the center's research program was driven by an anti-gun prejudice, had previously sought to eliminate the NCIPC completely. "This research is designed to, and is used to, promote a campaign to reduce lawful firearms ownership in America," wrote 10 senators, including then Majority Leader Bob Dole and current Majority Leader Trent Lott. "Funding redundant research initiatives, particularly those which are driven by a social-policy agenda, simply does not make sense."

After the NCIPC survived the 1995 budget process, opponents narrowed their focus, seeking to pull the plug on the gun research specifically, or at least to punish the CDC for continuing to fund it. At a May 1996 hearing, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.), co-sponsor of the amendment cutting the CDC's budget, chastised NCIPC Director Mark Rosenberg for treating guns as a "public health menace," suggesting that he was "working toward changing society's attitudes so that it becomes socially unacceptable to own handguns." In June the House Appropriations Committee adopted Dickey's amendment, which included a prohibition on the use of CDC funds "to advocate or promote gun control," and in July the full House rejected an attempt to restore the money.

Although the CDC ultimately got the $2.6 million back as part of a budget deal with the White House, the persistent assault on the agency's gun research created quite a stir. New England Journal of Medicine Editor Jerome Kassirer, who has published several of the CDC-funded gun studies, called it "an attack that strikes at the very heart of scientific research." Writing in The Washington Post, CDC Director David Satcher said criticism of the firearm research did not bode well for the country's future: "If we question the honesty of scientists who give every evidence of long deliberation on the issues before them, what are our expectations of anyone else? What hope is there for us as a society?" Frederick P. Rivara, a pediatrician who has received CDC money to do gun research, told The Chronicle of Higher Education that critics of the program were trying "to block scientific discovery because they don't like the results. This is a frightening trend for academic researchers. It's the equivalent of book burning."

That view was echoed by columnists and editorial writers throughout the country. In a New York Times column entitled "More N.R.A. Mischief," Bob Herbert defended the CDC's "rigorous, unbiased, scientific studies," suggesting that critics could not refute the results of the research and therefore had decided "to pull the plug on the funding and stop the effort altogether." Editorials offering the same interpretation appeared in The Washington Post ("NRA: Afraid of Facts"), USA Today ("Gun Lobby Keeps Rolling"), the Los Angeles Times ("NRA Aims at the Messenger"), The Atlanta Journal ("GOP Tries to Shoot the Messenger"), the Sacramento Bee ("Shooting the Messenger"), and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ("The Gun Epidemic").

Contrary to this picture of dispassionate scientists under assault by the Neanderthal NRA and its know-nothing allies in Congress, serious scholars have been criticizing the CDC's "public health" approach to gun research for years. In a presentation at the American Society of Criminology's 1994 meeting, for example, University of Illinois sociologist David Bordua and epidemiologist David Cowan called the public health literature on guns "advocacy based on political beliefs rather than scientific fact." Bordua and Cowan noted that The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association, the main outlets for CDC-funded studies of firearms, are consistent supporters of strict gun control. They found that "reports with findings not supporting the position of the journal are rarely cited," "little is cited from the criminological or sociological field," and the articles that are cited "are almost always by medical or public health researchers."

Further, Bordua and Cowan said, "assumptions are presented as fact: that there is a causal association between gun ownership and the risk of violence, that this association is consistent across all demographic categories, and that additional legislation will reduce the prevalence of firearms and consequently reduce the incidence of violence." They concluded that "[i]ncestuous and selective literature citations may be acceptable for political tracts, but they introduce an artificial bias into scientific publications. Stating as fact associations which may be demonstrably false is not just unscientific, it is unprincipled." In a 1994 presentation to the Western Economics Association, State University of New York at Buffalo criminologist Lawrence Southwick compared public health firearm studies to popular articles produced by the gun lobby: "Generally the level of analysis done on each side is of a low quality. The papers published in the medical literature (which are uniformly anti-gun) are particularly poor science."

As Bordua, Cowan, and Southwick observed, a prejudice against gun ownership pervades the public health field. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, nicely summarizes the typical attitude of her colleagues in a recent book. "My own view on gun control is simple," she writes. "I hate guns and cannot imagine why anybody would want to own one. If I had my way, guns for sport would be registered, and all other guns would be banned." Opposition to gun ownership is also the official position of the U.S. Public Health Service, the CDC's parent agency. Since 1979, its goal has been "to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership," starting with a 25 percent reduction by the turn of the century.

Since 1985 the CDC has funded scores of firearm studies, all reaching conclusions that favor stricter gun control. But CDC officials insist they are not pursuing an anti-gun agenda. In a 1996 interview with the Times-Picayune, CDC spokeswoman Mary Fenley adamantly denied that the agency is "trying to eliminate guns." In a 1991 letter to CDC critic Dr. David Stolinsky, the NCIPC's Mark Rosenberg said "our scientific understanding of the role that firearms play in violent events is rudimentary." He added in a subsequent letter, "There is a strong need for further scientific investigations of the relationships among firearms ownership, firearms regulations and the risk of firearm- related injury. This is an area that has not been given adequate scrutiny. Hopefully, by addressing these important and appropriate scientific issues we will eventually arrive at conclusions which support effective, preventive actions."

Yet four years earlier, in a 1987 CDC report, Rosenberg thought the area adequately scrutinized, and his understanding sufficient, to urge confiscation of all firearms from "the general population," claiming "8,600 homicides and 5,370 suicides could be avoided" each year. In 1993 Rolling Stone reported that Rosenberg "envisions a long term campaign, similar to [those concerning] tobacco use and auto safety, to convince Americans that guns are, first and foremost, a public health menace." In 1994 he told The Washington Post, "We need to revolutionize the way we look at guns, like what we did with cigarettes. Now it [sic] is dirty, deadly, and banned."

As Bordua and Cowan noted, one hallmark of the public health literature on guns is a tendency to ignore contrary scholarship. Among criminologists, Gary Kleck's encyclopedic Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America (1991) is universally recognized as the starting point for further research. Kleck, a professor of criminology at Florida State University, was initially a strong believer that gun ownership increased the incidence of homicide, but his research made him a skeptic. His book assembles strong evidence against the notion that reducing gun ownership is a good way to reduce violence. That may be why Point Blank is never cited in the CDC's own firearm publications or in articles reporting the results of CDC-funded gun studies.

Three Kleck studies, the first published in 1987, have found that guns are used in self- defense up to three times as often as they are used to commit crimes. These studies are so convincing that the doyen of American criminologists, Marvin Wolfgang, conceded in the Fall 1995 issue of The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology that they pose a serious challenge to his own anti-gun views. "I am as strong a gun-control advocate as can be found among the criminologists in this country. What troubles me is the article by Gary Kleck and Mark Gertz. The reason I am troubled is that they have provided an almost clear- cut case of methodologically sound research in support of something I have theoretically opposed for years, namely, the use of a gun against a criminal perpetrator."

Yet Rosenberg and his CDC colleague James Mercy, writing in Health Affairs in 1993, present the question "How frequently are guns used to successfully ward off potentially violent attacks?" as not just open but completely unresearched. They cite neither Kleck nor the various works on which he drew.

When CDC sources do cite adverse studies, they often get them wrong. In 1987 the National Institute of Justice hired two sociologists, James D. Wright and Peter H. Rossi, to assess the scholarly literature and produce an agenda for gun control. Wright and Rossi found the literature so biased and shoddy that it provided no basis for concluding anything positive about gun laws. Like Kleck, they were forced to give up their own prior faith in gun control as they researched the issue.

But that's not the story told by Dr. Arthur Kellermann, director of Emory University's Center for Injury Control and the CDC's favorite gun researcher. In a 1988 New England Journal of Medicine article, Kellermann and his co-authors cite Wright and Rossi's book Under the Gun to support the notion that "restricting access to handguns could substantially reduce our annual rate of homicide." What they actually said was: "There is no persuasive evidence that supports this view." In a 1992 New England Journal of Medicine article, Kellermann cites an American Journal of Psychiatry study to back up the claim "that limiting access to firearms could prevent many suicides." But the study actually found just the opposite -- i.e., that people who don't have guns find other ways to kill themselves.

At the same time that he misuses other people's work, Kellermann refuses to provide the full data for any of his studies so that scholars can evaluate his findings. His critics therefore can judge his results only from the partial data he chooses to publish. Consider a 1993 New England Journal of Medicine study that, according to press reports, "showed that keeping a gun in the home nearly triples the likelihood that someone in the household will be slain there." This claim cannot be verified because Kellerman will not release the data. Relying on independent sources to fill gaps in the published data, SUNY-Buffalo's Lawrence Southwick has speculated that Kellermann's full data set would actually vindicate defensive gun ownership. Such issues cannot be resolved without Kellermann's cooperation, but the CDC has refused to require its researchers to part with their data as a condition for taxpayer funding.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement